A judge ordered a St. Thomas man released from jail Monday after finding that V.I. Police had illegally stopped and arrested him without probable cause that he had committed a crime.
Mariano R.M. Aubain was arrested early Sunday morning and charged with delaying and obstructing law enforcement officers, and resisting arrest. He was remanded to the V.I. Bureau of Corrections after he was unable to post $1,000 bond and spent Sunday evening in jail. At his advice of rights hearing Monday, public defender Frederick Johnson argued that police had no reason to stop Aubain for questioning, much less put him in handcuffs.
The incident began when officers with the COVID-19 task force responded at around 1 a.m. Sunday to Barbel Plaza, where a large crowd of people and vehicles had gathered. That area on Alton Adams Sr. Drive is known for illegal drag racing, according to the probable fact sheet filed by V.I. Police.
Officers “started to check the documents of the vehicles that were leaving the area and was [sic] involved in the possible drag racing,” and stopped a vehicle driven by Aubain, according to the fact sheet. Aubain refused to roll down his window or respond to officers’ demands that he produce his vehicle registration and insurance documents, and eventually got out of the vehicle and told police “I am not giving you anything.”
Police told him that “if he does not produce the documents as directed, he will be placed under arrest,” and officers wrestled Aubain into handcuffs as he resisted and tried to leave the scene, according to the fact sheet.
Johnson argued that Aubain had no obligation to produce his documents or comply with officers’ orders because police had no evidence that he was committing a crime at the time he was stopped.
He also questioned officers’ practice of stopping every driver leaving the scene, and said it violated citizens’ constitutional right to be free of illegal search and seizure.
While Assistant V.I. Attorney General Brenda Scales argued that the area was known to be a site for illegal drag racing, Johnson said his client’s presence there did not justify the police stop. If that were the case, he said, police could set up a traffic stop at any number of locations and check every person passing through, including the Territorial Public Defender’s office.
“My office is known to have people known to the criminal justice system coming in and out of it all the time. That’s not probable cause,” Johnson said. The arresting officer said in court Monday that he arrived at the scene about 45 minutes after the initial police response, and did not see Aubain drag racing or committing other traffic violations.
But Scales said citizens should obey when officers ask to see their driving documents. “If you don’t want to comply with an officer who asks to see your driver’s license, then don’t get one. It’s a privilege,” Scales said. “The court is putting a straitjacket on the officer.”
Carr said he was disturbed by the circumstances of the arrest, and agreed that the traffic stop was an impermissible, unconstitutional intrusion on Aubain’s rights. The United States is “a country that checks unlimited power,” Carr said to Scales. “I keep reminding you what country we live in.”
Carr said that while he considered allowing the prosecution to proceed, “when I take a look at this case as a whole, I just feel very, very uncomfortable.” He chided Aubain for his hostile reaction toward officers, but “if he resisted arrest from an unlawful arrest, I can’t find probable cause for that either,” Carr said. “I just don’t find probable cause to support the arrest.”
Carr ordered Aubain to be immediately released from custody.